Security experts scoff at Mars rover hack threat

Viewed as a 'weak' attempt at trolling using Anonymous' name, or effort by law enforcement to lure hackers

The word has been out for more than a week now that the hacktivist group Anonymous is looking to break into the communication system between NASA and the Mars rover, Curiosity.

The New York security firm Flashpoint Partners reported that it found a message on an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) by a user called "MarsCuriosity," asking for help to hack into the signals NASA uses to communicate with the rover.

But within the security community, the rumor has been greeted mostly with yawns, shrugs or a few scornful chuckles. No panic buttons are being pressed. It is being viewed either as a "weak" attempt at trolling, or an effort by law enforcement to lure hackers to fall for a sting.

Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, posted a tweet late last week saying, "The Daily Mail has an article about Anonymous planning to hack the Mars rover. For your convenience, I won't link to it." He later added in an email, "I think it's a joke."

Gary Cutlack, writing at Gizmodo, "Whether this is an idle boast of a rogue member or a genuine hacking attempt we can't tell, we'll just have to wait to see if images of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Total Recall' start appearing on top of NASA's imagery."

Steve Ragan wrote at Security Week that the fact that the story has gained legs at all, "proves that the name Anonymous can be used to give even the most outlandish claims a spotlight."

He called MarsCuriosity's message "a weak attempt to troll at best. Trolling within Anonymous is an art form and it's used for amusement mainly ... to target the gullible."

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Flashpoint reported that on Aug. 9, MarsCuriosity posted the following message on the AnonOps IRC channel: "Anyone in Madrid, Spain or Canbarra who can help isolate the huge control signal used for the Mars Odyssey/Curiosity system please? The cypher and hopping is a standard mode, just need base frequency and recordings/feed of the huge signal going out. (yes we can spoof it both directions!)

PCMag's Damon Poeter reported that Flashpoint co-founder Josh Lefkowitz acknowledged that the post might not be what it appears on its face. He said the name MarsCuriosity was "likely a one-off created and used specifically for the proposed operation."

"There's even the possibility that the poster is an anti-Anonymous actor or member of law enforcement seeking to draw out actual members of the collective," Lefkowitz is reported to have said.

None of this means NASA is invulnerable, said James Arlen, a senior consultant with Taos.

Like his colleagues, Arlen thinks MarsCuriosity is a troll, but said if the threat is real, its success will come down to whether the proper command-and-control link can be subjugated, like an SQL injection in a web app; or whether the proper command-and-control link can be meaningfully replaced, as in an infrastructure hack/DNS spoof.

"I think the answers are 'probably' and 'less likely,' but both remain non-zero," Arlen said, adding that he thinks NASA is making major efforts to tighten the security of the mission. "I think that the instantiation of the multiple layers of communications between the various assets operating on and around Mars is a leading indication that NASA is paying attention to what is important."

"The work done by Vint Cerf and JPL on the Interplanetary Internet is an indication that people smarter than you or me are actively working the problem," he said.

Still, Arlen said anyone on earth can listen to the conversations between NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Mars. "Some limitations are imposed by physics -- it's easier to listen to the response than to pick up some sort of scatter on the send -- but overall, as DirectTV is all too aware, radio waves freely propagate."

What kind of damage or mischief could such a hack cause? Arlen said he doubts it would destroy or seriously damage the rover, although "the bad guys don't care what they wreck." What's more likely: "They're just looking to goof things up, preferably in a way that embarrasses the U.S. government."

Arlen said even if this post is simply trolling, "with Software Defined Radio and things like the GNURadio/Ettus USRP, we're entering a new age of 'interesting' when it comes to radio communications."

"Think about things like the NinjaTel network at DEF CON 20 / Shadytel at Toorcamp and the cell-tower-on-a-usb-stick that Ettus has. These are going to be awfully interesting times for people who expect 'the rules' to be followed," Arlen said.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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